In The Wake Of The CBS News Tragedy, What To Make Of The Critics?

(CBS/U.S. Army)
"One thing I don't want to hear anymore," Steve Capus, the president of NBC News, told The New York Times's Bill Carter in the wake of the car bomb attack in Iraq that left two CBS News personnel dead and one critically injured, "is people like Laura Ingraham spewing about us not leaving our balconies in the Green Zone to cover what's really happening in Iraq."

Ingraham has come under quite a bit of fire for her March 21 comments on NBC's "Today," where she said the following to David Gregory:
David, to do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military. To go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people, instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.
Ingraham had gone to Iraq for eight days, and while she was there, she says she "wasn't in a hotel balcony. I was out with the U.S. military." CBS News' Lara Logan, appearing on CNN's "Reliable Sources," called Ingraham's statements "outrageous" in an interview two months after ABC's Bob Woodruff sustained serious injuries while reporting in Iraq. "I think it's an outrage to point the finger at journalists and say that this is our fault. I really do. And I think it shows an abject lack of respect for any journalist that's prepared to come to this country and risk their lives," she said.

After the attack involving CBS News personnel, blogger Atrios dredged up Ingraham's comments and wrote the following:
Journalists tend a bit too much to bask in the reflected glory of the accomplishments and activities of their greatest colleagues, but there's certainly reason to have a great deal of respect for people who are actually trying to get the story in Iraq. The truth is it is extremely dangerous for journalists to go out in Iraq - something the right wingers sitting in their basements covered in cheetoes like to attribute to cowardice as they wank away - but it's also the case that some journalists are getting out there one way or another.

Another few millenia in hell awaits Ingraham, I think.
It's important to note that while Ingraham's critique was the most high-profile, she was not alone. Ralph Peters wrote in the New York Post on March 5th that while many journalists are brave and conscientious, "some in Baghdad - working for "prestigious" publications - aren't out on the city streets the way they pretend to be." He continued: "They're safe in their enclaves, protected by hired guns, complaining that it's too dangerous out on the streets. They're only in Baghdad for the byline, and they might as well let their Iraqi employees phone it in to the States."

In 2003, new White House domestic policy appointee Karl Zinsmeister said that many of the journalists covering the war are "whiny and appallingly soft." He added:
The journalists embedded among U.S. forces that I've crossed paths with are fish out of water here, and show their discomfort clearly as they hide together in the press tents, fantasizing about expensive restaurants at home and plush hotels in Kuwait City, fondling keyboards and satellite phones with pale fingers, clinging to their world of offices and tattle and chatter where they feel less ineffective, less testosterone deficient, more influential....
In July 2005, a group of six conservative talk show hosts organized a "truth tour" to Iraq to combat what they considered the dire portrayal of the war coming from the liberal media. Their belief that they could simply get the real story on the ground, unlike the mainstream media – one host, Melanie Morgan, said she planned to "get away from my military minders and talk to people" – prompted liberal talk show host Al Franken to say, "That's how stupid these people are. They think they can walk around and talk to shopkeepers. They don't realize how dangerous it is over there." (Here are the talk show hosts' reports from the trip.)

The Iraq war is now considered by some to be the most dangerous in modern history for journalists, with 71 journalists and 26 support staffers killed, more than in Vietnam, Korea or World War II. Iraq is, without a doubt, an extraordinarily dangerous place. And particularly in light of what has happened to journalists in this war, one can't help but note that Ingraham decided her eight-day Iraq tour qualified her to judge journalists who risked their lives for long periods covering the conflict. Kimberly Dozier has just had shrapnel removed from her head. Paul Douglas and James Brolan are dead. And they are just three of many.

Members of the press corps in Iraq are risking their lives trying to bring the story of the war to Americans, and the trivialization of those efforts strikes me as offensive. War reporters deserve our respect and admiration, but some in the conservative media criticism echo chamber have seen fit to slander them in order to argue that the situation in Iraq is far better than it appears. They take metaphorical shots at the messengers as the messengers do their jobs among very real bullets.

However: We shouldn't forget that there are legitimate issues worth considering when it comes to the news reports from Iraq. In September, the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, Time magazine's Michael Ware, National Review Online's James Robbins, and CBS News' Randall Joyce talked to me about whether the news from Iraq was being reported accurately. While they disagreed, they engaged the issues in a way that went beyond the standard partisan rhetoric, and certainly didn't resort to implying that reporters in Iraq are cowards. Stephens, who believes events in Iraq are better than they are portrayed in the media, still went out of his way to note that "overwhelmingly, most of the American reporters who are out there are doing a heroic job."

It's also important to remember that the media isn't monolithic, and that reporters have to make decisions all the time about whether a particular story is worth the risk. CBS' Harry Smith, who left Baghdad roughly 48 hours before the attack on Brolin, Douglas and Dozier, wrote the following:
The whole time you're in Baghdad, you think about risk. You assess risk. Is the story you want to do worth it? Can you tilt the risk a little more in your favor?

You use your brains, your experience. You ask yourself a lot of questions, and then you do the story.

We said no to a story last week and have no regrets about it.
Does saying no to a story mean that you're an "appallingly soft" wimp who is "reporting from hotel balconies?" No. It means that you opted not to put yourself in harm's way so that the next time, when the risk is less and the reward greater, you're still around to do the story. There are reporters who are more willing than most to get out amongst the people and the fighting, folks like recent CNN hire Ware, who has been lucky – he could very well be dead. If the majority of journalists aren't as aggressive as Ware, the fact that so many have died suggests that they're constantly taking serious risks.

It's true that if reporters were more willing to go out into the streets, we might be getting a slightly more complete picture of the situation in Iraq. We would also have more dead reporters. Considering the situation on the ground, I think most journalists have gone above and beyond the call of duty to do their jobs well. Several months ago I asked my bosses to go to Baghdad in order to report on the press corps there, and was turned down for safety reasons. I'm not sure I would make the same request today. If Ingraham feels, despite all of the violence against members of the press, that journalists are too cautious in covering the war, I encourage her to get out on the streets of Baghdad for an extended tour.

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